Sullivan’s Island doctor strikes gold in Dragon Boat World Championships

Dr. Andrew McMarlin of Sullivan’s Island (middle boat, second from left) competes in the World Championship Dragon Boat races in Szeged, Hungary.

There was more than enough metal in his luggage to set off airport security alarms as Dr. Andrew McMarlin returned to Charleston from the International Dragon Boat Federation’s World Championships in Hungary this summer.

McMarlin brought home a gold medal, two silver medals and two bronze medals as a member of the U.S. team.

“I competed in eight different events and of those eight events we made the final in all, which is fantastic, and got medals in five of them,” said McMarlin, who lives on Sullivan’s Island with his wife and two children.

McMarlin said the 1,000-meter mixed race, in which the U.S. won gold, was “a very painful four minutes but I could really feel a great rhythm in the boat with all 20 paddles in unison.” He said the U.S. started half a boat length behind Germany, Canada, Australia and the Ukraine, but passed the other boats and broke clear in the final 100 meters, beating Germany by .04 seconds.

McMarlin also earned silver medals in the 2,000-meter men and mixed races and earned bronze medals in the 200-meter men’s and mixed races. He made the team after being invited to Philadelphia for time trials, where competitors raced various distances in a single-person canoe. McMarlin said everyone tested with the same boat over the same course.

Dragon boat races date back thousands of years to China where teams from different villages would compete against each other. It’s relatively modern as an international sport. The International Dragon Boat Federation was formed in 1991.

Teams of 20 paddlers, along with a drummer and a sweep who steers the boat, compete in races over 200, 500, 1,000 and 2,000 meters. The canoes each weigh about 600 pounds, much lighter than the original teak boats. During competitions, teams switch boats so no one gains an advantage.

McMarlin, who specializes in sports medicine and musculoskeletal care, got involved in dragon boat racing while he was in medical school. An Army brat who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, McMarlin, 44, was a standout rower at Annapolis where he said the team won some national championships. He and his doubles partner won the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1996 although they didn’t qualify to row in Atlanta.

“Some friends of mine from medical school had been doing dragon boats, and the U.S. team was based in Philadelphia where I was in medical school,” McMarlin said. “They made it sound reasonable. The practices in the morning were only from 5 to 7, so that was perfect with my med school schedule. At the time I had been training 7 to 8 hours for rowing, so training a couple of hours a day wasn’t anything abnormal. I started paddling with the U.S. team there, made the team and have done a bunch of fantastic trips around the world.”

McMarlin hopes to add to his collection of medals this weekend when he competes with a team from Philadelphia on Saturday and Sunday in the U.S. Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew National Championships near Princeton, N.J. All crews at that event are competing for a berth in the 2014 World Championships in Italy.